Claire Huangci, Heiko Mathias Förster / Prague Royal Philharmonic
Beethoven New Year’s Concert

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2020-01-04

3.5-star rating

2020-01-11 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

A little over a year ago, on 2018-10-20, I attended one of four concerts forming a “Beethoven Gala Weekend” that the “Theater Club / JTC Theater&Reisen” organized in Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag. That concert featured the German conductor Heiko Mathias Förster (*1966, see also Wikipedia) and his Prague Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The program back then consisted of works by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) exclusively:

The soloist in the piano concerto back then was the American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia). It was the second encounter with that artist, a few months after she had won the Concours Géza Anda in Zurich. A whole series of encounters with that artist were to follow after that!

A Déjà-vu Experience?

In the first days of January 2020, the same organizer (Theater Club / JTC Theater&Reisen) arranged for another set of four concerts on two subsequent days (two concerts each), with the very same artists (soloist, conductor, orchestra). The first two of these were on Saturday, 2020-01-04, their program was identical. As the celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary appear to be in full swing already, the program of this “Beethoven New Year’s Concert” again featured works by this composer exclusively:

The two concerts on the subsequent day (Sunday, 2020-01-05), however, featured works by Dvořák (Symphony No.9), Mozart (Piano Concerto No.25 in C major, K.503), and Gershwin (Rhapsody in blue).

An Accidental Concert Visit?

Claire Huangci was to perform the same concerto as in October 2018. So, I meant to skip that concert and rather attend the Dvořák—Mozart—Gershwin program instead. Accidentally, the Facebook announcement for these concerts got mixed up. The Sunday program was listed for the afternoon concert on Saturday. I did not pay attention when booking tickets, so we ended up with tickets for the Beethoven concert on Saturday afternoon. When I noticed the mix-up, I decided to keep that reservation. After all, at least the pieces around the concerto were different from the ones in the previous instance. Further, Claire Huangci’s interpretation may have evolved—and/or I may hear different details now. This time, our seats were on the other side of the hall, on the right-hand side gallery. I was happy to note that the venue’s 1226 seats were essentially sold out.

I chose to take along the score, and to take notes. Even though I wasn’t sure whether I was going to write a review, or maybe just a short amendment to the older concert review, or nothing at all. The outcome: obviously a review nevertheless—though focusing on the concerto. As for the surrounding Beethoven works: with a grain of salt, the older review still applies.


Concert & Review

Beethoven: Overture to the Opera “Fidelio”, op.72

This is the overture that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote for the final version of his opera, published 1814 as Fidelio, op.72. There are three more overtures relating to earlier versions of the opera, then named Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (“Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love”). One of these additional overtures (Leonore No.3) is now usually performed at the beginning of the second act. This is also the one that Heiko Mathias Förster and the Prague Royal Philharmonic performed in the concert on 2018-10-20.

The Performance

The orchestra performed in a fair-size configuration, with 12 + 12 violins (both on the left side of the podium, followed by the cellos, violas on the right-hand side of the podium). The performance characteristics weren’t too far from those in the overture to the previous concert. A solid performance, good woodwind soloists, homogeneous string sound. I was also pleased with the initial, exposed horn parts. Later in the overture, there were occasional mishaps with the horns—but nothing that would affect the overall outcome. Horn articulation is notoriously tricky, and this was the first of four concerts.

Apart from a few, very slight inaccuracies at the very beginning, the coordination within the orchestra was good, the sound full in general. I found the interpretation to be close to traditional performances. One could expect this already from the orchestra size. Heiko Mathias Förster is not aiming for the light, transparent articulation and sound that has become customary with the recent trend towards historically informed (HIP) performances.

My main quibble with the performance is with the somewhat limited, restricted dynamics. In my opinion, p and pp should / could be softer, the overall range larger: the interpretation seemed to move between mp/mf and f/ff.

Rating: ★★★


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 in E♭ major, op.73, “Emperor”

This is the fourth concert review featuring the Piano Concerto No.5 in E♭ major, op.73, “Emperor”, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Rather than giving a detailed description of the work, let me just refer to the earlier review from the concert on 2018-10-20, where you also find references to additional reviews and information.

  1. Allegro (4/4)
  2. Adagio un poco mosso (4/4)
  3. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo (6/8)

Claire Huangci’s instrument was a Steinway D-274 concert grand (Gebr. Bachmann, Wetzikon ZH).

The Performance

I. Allegro

Already with the three opening cadenzas (filling the gaps between the powerful cadence chords in the orchestra), one could recognize Claire Huangci’s “handwriting”. Her playing was full of momentum, impulsive, with emphasis—and not surprisingly, she chose a fairly fluent tempo (very fast trills!) up to the espressivo culminations.

The subsequent orchestral introduction fit the picture that I already had from the overture: robust, solid, a conventional interpretation aiming for full sound. In contrast to the violins, the cellos and basses sounded somewhat dull. OK, I sat on the side of the basses, and on the gallery, their sound only reached me indirectly—however, this still should not happen, given the analytic acoustics in this venue. Overall, I found the orchestra slightly summary, offering little differentiation, particularly in agogics. This became most evident when Claire Huangci re-entered the scene with her solo parade. I’m only slightly overstating when I claim that all of a sudden the music came to life—so rich in agogics, dynamics, emphasis, differentiation, expression: subtle, gentle, even intimate in the lyrical segments, powerful in the ff eruptions (e.g., around bar 144).

I also liked the clarity and diligence in the treatment of the left hand (e.g., in the staccato in bars 184ff), and how Claire Huangci formed harmonious, big arches.

Differentiation

The purely orchestral segments on the other hand often lack differentiation. One example: in the orchestral bars 425 – 431, Beethoven writes f—why was this such a loud, almost stomping ff? However, Heiko Mathias Förster still was attentive as accompanist. The coordination between soloist and orchestra was fine throughout (even though maybe not always perfect). One limitation: as already in the overture, there was rarely a real pp in the orchestra. And in places such as bars 467ff (strings: pp, woodwinds: p, dolce), the orchestra was too loud relative to the solo part.

The concerto does not offer opportunities for freely created (or improvised) cadenzas. However, the piano part includes many shorter, written-out, but rhythmically free cadenzas, e.g., the one in bar 371ff, following the rhapsodic return of the opening bars (363ff). Technically brilliant, effortless, Claire Huangci kept the differentiation in agogics, especially around a climax. Minute quibble: in the ascending, chromatic scale at the end of bar 372, the use of the sustain pedal must have been a mishap?

If after a lyrical segment the piano part turned rhapsodic again, the soloist returned to her fluent tempo—however, at no time, the piano part felt rushed or pushed. And after the last (pre-notated) cadenza, Claire Huangci managed to keep emphasis and momentum, without giving up differentiation in dynamics and agogics.

II. Adagio un poco mosso

Beautiful, how Claire Huangci sheped the solo part expressively: subtle, lyrical, with a singing legato, so detailed and diligent in agogics and dynamics, consciously shaped from the big phrases all the way down to motifs. Simply excellent in the solo!

III. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo

I was pleased to note that Claire Huangci chose not to use syncopation in the second pair of quavers in the main motif / theme! I have explained this (and the reason for my preference) in a review from an earlier concert performance, back in 2016.

Not surprisingly, Claire Huangci’s playing was very virtuosic, her tempo at the upper limit. A slightly slower pace would have allowed for more differentiation in some of the scales, and more clarity in the articulation of the two semiquaver pairs around the end of the first bar (and subsequent equivalents). Too much brilliance and modern concert grand??

Sadly, the orchestra again lacked differentiation: my primary impression from f / tutti segments was often just “loud”—too loud, bordering on gross. Some of this may have to do with the size of the orchestra? I think there is more to this movement than “Emperor” and “festive fanfares”.

Rating, solo: ★★★★½ / ★★★★½ / ★★★★
Rating, orchestra: ★★★


Encore — Brahms: Waltz No.15 in A♭ major from 16 Waltzes, op.39 

As encore, Claire Huangci selected the Waltz No.15 in A♭ major from the 16 Waltzes, op.39, which Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed in 1865, originally for two pianos. The encore was a version for piano two hands, which Brahms created 1867. Claire Huangci has recently added the entire op.39 to her concert repertoire. For details see my report from her recital in Schaffhausen, on 2019-12-08.

The Performance

After the brilliant, mostly extroverted finale of the piano concerto, the short, but very peaceful, soothing, serene encore offered warmth, intimacy, comfort—what a pleasure!

Rating: ★★★★½


Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica“

The final part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). In my blog (and possibly in the local concert life, too), this is the most frequently performed and reviewed composition. I have written about four orchestral performances in the past, plus about two performances of Franz Liszt’s piano transcription—see my earlier reviews for details. Also, I don’t need to describe the composition, as I have written a post with a comparison of various CD recordings. Let me just list the movements here:

  1. Allegro con brio, 3/4 (3/4=60)
  2. Marcia funebre. Adagio assai, 2/4 (1/8=80)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio, 3/4 (3/4=116)
  4. Finale: Allegro molto, 2/4 (1/2=76) — Poco Andante (1/8=108) — Presto (1/4=116)

The Performance

I. Allegro con brio

In line with the performance in the overture, Heiko Mathias Förster and the Prague Royal Philharmonic were far from offering a historically informed performance. The soundscape was traditional. And here as well, the dynamics were rather restricted—barely a real p, let alone pp. There can be two aspects to this. The orchestra maybe just wasn’t instructed to perform pp really softly. More likely, the musicians failed to adapt to the acoustics of the venue: the Tonhalle Maag has clear limitations in how much ff it “tolerates”, but on the other hand, the acoustics are very analytical, supporting the softest of ppp throughout the hall.

And also here, Heiko Mathias Förster remained rather rigid in his conducting, allowing for limited agogics only (if any at all), lacking subtlety, often rather pushing forward. In the development part, this led to a feeling of restlessness. Also, despite the schematic and generally clear conducting, the coordination wasn’t always as it could and should be (e.g., in bars 571 – 584, the staccati in the first violins were somewhat shaky). And with the “driven” pace, fast motifs (with semiquavers) sometimes sounded superficial, maybe careless (e.g., bars 65ff), if not gross, especially in the ff. On the bright side: the exposition was repeated.

II. Marcia funebre. Adagio assai

Here, the tempo felt somewhat “fast”—however, in this case, this is what the composer asked for (♪=80). Sadly, the first 16 bars were lacking rhythmic clarity: e.g., some of the punctuations in the oboes were “washed out”, lacked accuracy. I also often felt a lack of “air to breathe”: the music would have gained so much from extra agogics, from an occasional ritenuto, e.g., in transitions, or around peak notes in a phrase.

One of the challenges of this movement is, to stay close to Beethoven’s tempo annotation—yet to avoid the feeling of the music feeling “pushed”, restless. I can’t say that the conductor was successful in this. On the other hand, the coordination improved in the course of the movement.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio

A challenging, virtuosic movement, demanding excellent coordination and precision—and not entirely successful in the staccato in the strings (and the cellos and basses again sounded somewhat spongy). Was the tempo on the fast side for this orchestra?

I liked the bright, clear sound of the horns in the Trio—my only quibble is that they tended to lose momentum after a few bars. The tempo in the Trio may have been slightly slower—which is OK. However, the second instance of the Scherzo then sounded somewhat “driven”, when the conductor was resuming the original tempo.

IV. Finale: Allegro molto — Poco Andante — Presto

Heiko Mathias Förster has a tendency to challenge the orchestra by going to the limit with the tempo. This not only led to occasional slight inaccuracies in the coordination, but it also (and again) occasionally made the music feel “pushed”. In bars 62ff, a 4-voice solo quartet presents the theme to the fugue. Sadly, the concertmaster’s vibrato was vastly too nervous. In my view, omitting vibrato altogether would have been the much better choice.

Rating: ★★★

I realize that my comments sound rather critical. For one, this does not imply that I didn’t enjoy the music. Plus, I try applying the same measures for all orchestras & artists—and the performance standard in Zurich with its two top-class orchestras is very high.



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